History of Omaha black firefighters on display

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February 1st, 2012

Omaha, NE – In the late 1800s, Omaha was home to one of the earliest African American firefighter crews in the country. Photographs of Omaha’s early black firefighters are on display, and up for auction, at Hot Shops Art Center this week.

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“I keep my history around with me,” said Marvin Ervin, as he walked into Hot Shops Art Center in downtown Omaha, carrying a black folder, stuffed with photographs and papers. Ervin has been spending his retirement reading old newspaper articles, sifting through black and white photos, and pouring through documents.

Marvin Ervin holds up one of the framed photographs that will be up for auction at Hot Shops Art Center. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“That’s Mr. Ricketts there,” Ervin said, pulling out a photograph of Matthew Oliver Rickets, the first African American elected to the Nebraska Legislature, and an instrumental figure in the establishment of the first class of African American firefighters in Omaha.

Ervin is a former Omaha firefighter captain. He’s also a board member of the Omaha Black Firefighters Phoenix Foundation. He said he became fascinated with the history of Omaha’s black firefighters, because he grew up under segregation in South Carolina, and he understands how segregation can demean a person. He wanted to learn more about how it could be overcome, he said.

Ricketts, who Ervin said is one of his favorite characters in the story of black firefighters in Omaha, led the African American Society, and petitioned the fire commissioner to allow five African American men to become the first black firefighters in the city.

That was in 1895, Ervin said, pointing to a framed article covering the story from the Omaha Bee, one of Omaha’s earliest newspapers.

One of the earliest photographs of Omaha's first black firefighter class at their station house on 27th St. and Jones.

Omaha was one of the first cities in the nation to have a black firefighter crew on the city payroll. Other cities had attempted to do so, but the crews didn’t last.

Ervin said Omaha was successful where others failed, because it had a brand new fire chief, in from Chicago at the time, who had no ties to the establishment. “So when they decided to hire the African Americans, it was just a part of the changes that he was making to the fire department anyway,” Ervin said.

Omaha’s first class of black firefighters had its challenges. Ervin said the men had little training and were sometimes hassled or sent out to the wrong locations. But, he said, they overcame, and African Americans were members of the Omaha Fire Department ever since.

Ervin is hoping to gather more materials and raise funds for a small museum at the current headquarters of the Omaha Black Firefighters Association in North Omaha. The group is housed on Lake Street in North Omaha in a historic fire station house, which is also home to an antique fire truck.

Ervin said he wants to remind the city of its history to encourage young people to see hope in their futures. “When I go to high schools and I talk to young people, and I see the circumstances in which they find themselves in,” Ervin said, “a lot of times you don’t see any hope in their eyes, and even the language of the people.”

“And they assume the circumstances that they live in now, it’s been that way always,” he said. “So sometimes you have to take a step back, and look at where you came from, and then you can see maybe there is an opportunity for me to change my circumstances.”

Proceeds from a silent auction of 11×14, impressively-framed photographs from the collection will go toward building a permanent home for the archives. The exhibit opens at Hot Shops Art Center with an opening reception Friday, Feb. 3 at 5pm.

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